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An Idea Is a Terrible Thing to Waste


And it's worse when you don't have any ideas to start with. But organizations seem to have a natural (or should we say unnatural) tendency to squash creative thought and challenges to the status quo. To overcome this, organizations must develop a culture that fosters a healthly dose of disruption.
By: Scott Briscoe
According to Seth Godin, we spend too much time on "do" work and not enough on big-picture thinking. To stop and think, you first have to stop.

When great ideas meet great execution, something magical happens. That's why Yahoo! is everybody's first choice for searching the Web and shopping online.

What's that?

When you search you use Google? When you think of shopping online you think of Amazon or eBay? That almost wasn't the case — perhaps.

In his book Free Prize Inside: The Next Big Marketing Idea (Portfolio, 2004), Seth Godin relates the story of when he was with Yahoo! and melded together a few ideas that had been percolating at the then-dominant Web portal and search utility. The basics of the idea were to award points to Web surfers for clicking on certain links, thus, as Godin writes, creating "a dramatic impact on influencing the click stream." Users would then use the points auction-style to bid for prizes, a mechanism that made containing the cost possible. The money-making part was that companies would pay to make their links worth points.

"Not only was this program going to ensure our long-time domination, it was going to make a profit," he writes in Free Prize. "It was eBay meets frequent-flier miles."

Overcoming Inertia
Would the idea have defined Yahoo's future success? We'll never know, because the idea sat in a parking space. And sat. It's still there, though it does have an international patent to show for itself.

Godin blames himself for not being assertive enough. In Free Prize he'll tell you how the individual can overcome the inertia of the organization. Read it if you want to learn to become a successful champion of an idea. But the individual should not take full responsibility for failed ideas: Some organizations — most, in fact — can have stubbornly strong inertia. It's not as if Yahoo!, then or now, is a poster child for Wall Street Journal conservatism. And yet it had that same inertia that could snuff out even the most ignitable of ideas. Part of being a leader in an organization is not just championing ideas but creating an environment that encourages others to champion ideas.

"The best organizations have a bias for implementing the unproven," Godin says. "One of the major misconceptions is the belief that an idea has to be great, because what ends up happening is an unrealistic bar is set. People with ideas don't need to prove that the idea is great; they just need to prove that the idea is better than what the company is currently doing." However, inspiring a culture that spawns that "bias for implementing the unproven" can be elusive.

A common reason cited for not developing and following through on ideas is lack of time. E-mail, cell phones, Outlook, text messages, Blackberrys, networking from home, multitasking, airports, receptions... oh yeah, and don't forget family and friends and hobbies — we've all packed so much into our days that no one has a second left over, right?

The dirty little secret is this: Time is a cop out. It's an excuse, not a reason. The sadly ironic thing is that time also is the excuse often used when programs reach a plateau or are declining — the customers just don't have time to attend a conference, read a book, come to your Web site, or what have you. Ironically, that leaves you with employees too "busy" to think about new things, because they're working hard to produce the same old stuff that customers don't want anymore. That's not a healthy cycle.

Godin notes a difference between what he calls "do" work and "idea" work. "People are masters at expanding the 'do' work to fill the available time. If you have 10 minutes left in the day, are you going to start task number seven or are you going to tackle a difficult issue? Almost everyone will do the task. But if everyone in an organization committed to just one hour a day to focus on the 'idea' work, the 'do' work would still get done, and the organization would be in a much better position."

Keith Yamashita, coauthor (with Sandra Spataro) of the aptly named Unstuck (Portfolio, 2004), says that learning to see your organization through the eyes of your customer is an excellent way to break the inertia within an organization. He relates this story of working with The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). "They have to deliver great programming that local subscribers are willing to pay for," says Yamashita. "They have to offer things that will touch people in different ways."

As an exercise, Yamashita had PBS executives map out a day from six in the morning to nine at night of any one of a few different types of typical viewers. Then the executives needed to determine how many times and in what ways PBS could be a meaningful experience in that person's life.

"If you're a working mom in Kansas City, can [PBS] touch you 27 times in a day?" Yamashita asks. "These executives had to think in a thorough way about an entire viewer's life. They have these local issues — how does a national entity like PBS touch on things like community engagement? How could they drive results locally that were so powerful that their affiliates would be compelled to pick up what they were offering?"

As a third option to break away from "do" work and into "idea" work, Godin notes the special position held by those with authority. "If you're a manager and one of your staff is going to a conference, tell them to come back with 10 new ideas or don't bother coming back." Sounds great, but here's how you can kill this idea: Give the decree but never follow up. Here's another way to kill this idea: Follow up by making employees put the ideas on a form that gets filed away in the ominous personnel file somewhere. For the tip to work, it has to be institutionalized in a positive way, not a bureaucratic way. The ideas need to be studied, vetted, applied to different scenarios, twisted by colleagues, and ultimately applied, changed, or discarded. The work of ideas must become part of everyone's job description.

The Ultimate Management Weapon
Godin also has a simple solution to encourage employees to engage in idea work: "Use management's most potent tool — promotions and firing."

Godin says creative people who eagerly seek innovation have a "marketing" mindset. "These people are the ones leading the organization," he says. "They need to be made heroes. Give them raises, promotions, and bonuses."

The flipside is getting rid of the obstacles. "Don't fire someone because they screwed up," Godin says. "Fire the people who refuse to do anything except the status quo."

The trap that arises is that if you fire all the doers of the status quo and keep all the idea workers, the company is likely to fail just as miserably. Godin dismisses this as conjecture, noting that even the most enlightened of companies remain firmly on the "do" side of the spectrum. "There's plenty of room before companies start going too far to the idea side."

Yamashita says it's important "to know why [employees] do what they do." Of course people will fill up the available time with the status quo. "Metrics and rewards, people and culture — how these things all fit together will determine the health of a team." The chances are if your people are stuck in the status quo, it is because your metrics, rewards, and culture point them there.

"Every association head I've met gives lip service to embracing change or driving change, but when it comes down to it, they deliver more of the same stuff," Godin says. "A lot of associations I know are supported by these big trade shows. They keep doing the same thing year after year, and the growth slows and slows, levels off, and then starts to decline. These people should, right now, start by denigrating the status quo. Envision a future where the trade show isn't 80 percent of revenue, it's 10 percent. If you can paint that picture and make people nervous about that future, then as trade shows begin fading, you'll be ready."

Godin also offers insight into how to paint that picture: Take people out of their comfort zones. "If I was going to sell an organization on abandoning a trade show, it's not about the figure '10 percent.' Real, emotionally charged stories are what is compelling. Get real people to talk about the shift of how they buy and sell products. It used to be you had to go to the trade show to see what was being developed and how other people used it. Now you're two minutes and three clicks away from that information. If you think that has not or will not change the character of trade shows, then your eyes are not open."

The Long-Term Approach
By radically rethinking a major revenue stream, you've just entered the realm of strategy. If "strategic planning" is too repugnant a term, drop the word "strategic." Whenever you plan your organization's future actions, there are always core beliefs behind that planning. "You start by saying it is important that you grow," says Godin. "If it's not important for you to grow, change nothing. You'll begin to shrink, slowly, and become less and less relevant."

Godin's trade show idea is one example of a fundamental shift that affects many associations. He'll also tell you it's important to look specifically at things affecting your industry. "If I'm the president of the [Motion Picture Association of America] and I want to shake up my organization, I would bring in videos of people who haven't been to a movie theater in five years because of DVDs, or teens who would rather play video games than see a movie. Some tactics can scare people into a new way of thinking."

Yamashita has an effective, if less dramatic, approach. "There's a silly little exercise I've used that's been really successful," he says. "Write a headline about the future that encapsulates where you'd like to be. What would the article look like? When leaders in an organization discuss that for a while, it's going to open new doors."

In associations, it's all too common for what passes as planning to actually be justification. Department heads are less interested in an objective discussion about how an organization's core beliefs manifest in its actions than in proving how their projects are reflections of the core beliefs. It's called having an agenda; it is the reason the status quo is perpetuated; and it is a primary reason associations get stuck. Getting unstuck in such a scenario isn't easy.

Yamashita says the first step is recognizing it as the reason the organization is stuck. After that, it's a matter of "bringing more discipline to the process of turning strategy into reality." He advocates taking small steps, building on each step as you go along.

"There's a lot of different techniques you can use. I like the idea of strategy mapping," he says. "Take the North Star, the most central, unwavering fundamental reason for the company, and begin to break down the company's outputs based on it. Ask yourself what could you do differently that would reflect that North Star better? Ideally, the leadership team will break through their own agendas and begin to see where it is best to invest the company's time and resources." If they can't or don't, it's quite possible that you don't have leaders in your leadership positions.

Yamashita also notes that a problem with many nonprofit organizations is having a purpose that is too broad. "A lot of groups think that if they narrow their focus that they are somehow giving away future possibilities," he says. "Let's face it — nonprofits are very good at developing and articulating their purpose. Where they often need help is developing the structure and process to drive results. A more narrow purpose can help them focus on the structures and processes so that they can achieve results."

The justification trap and having too broad a purpose are only two of the more likely ways for an association to find itself stuck in a cycle of stifling ideas and creativity. Yamashita goes through several more in Unstuck. The most important realization has to be that the status quo is the true enemy for the staff of an association. Those in leadership positions must recognize this and work hard to establish an organizational culture in which ideas large and small can flourish.

Author Link: Scott Briscoe is editor of Executive Update. He can be reached at

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